Before I say anything, I’d like to do the cowardly thing and protect myself with this statement: It is still really early in the season. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I can say whatever I want and no one in the entire world is allowed to call me out if I end up being proven absolutely wrong sometime in the future. That’s how that works, right? Cool, here we go.
Justin Wilcox was hired away from Tennessee to be Washington’s defensive coordinator in the wake of Nick Holt’s post-Alamo Bowl firing. Wilcox had done a good job in his two seasons at Tennessee, but his real claim to fame was coaching the Boise State defense from 2006-2009. The fact that he took a roster of largely 2 and 3-star athletes and crafted a defensive unit capable of competing at an extremely high level seemed to make him a perfect fit for a Washington defense that had lost its way under Holt.
So, when it came time to write dozens and dozens of articles from January to August about the upcoming season, pretty much every member of the Husky sports media said the same thing: If Wilcox can take the defense from historically bad to roughly average, there is no telling what the Huskies can achieve as a team.
Now, that’s not really the interesting part. It seems pretty obvious that if a team with a great offense and a bad offense was okay, then that same team with a great offense and an okay defense will be good. The intriguing thing is that the majority of the Husky sports media sort of just assumed Wilcox would pull it off, that he would elevate the dismal defense to the promised land of mediocrity.
Most of the season previews, including my own, had the Huskies shaving around a touchdown per game off of the 2011 average points allowed per game of 35.9. If that seems insignificant, it isn’t. That extra seven points is the difference between 108th in the nation, the actual rank of the 2011 Huskies, and 70th in the nation, which is less embarrassing.
I’m not saying Wilcox’s pedigree as a coach didn’t suggest he was capable of that sort of change; it certainly did. But it’s foolish to overlook just how bad Nick Holt’s defense was in pretty much every facet of the game. 116th in passing defense, 76th in rushing defense, only a single defensive touchdown. Not only did they absolutely fail to stop teams from gaining yards, they also failed to make plays.
So Wilcox is handed that defense, and almost immediately, optimism abounds. It isn’t a criticism, because I was just as optimistic as everyone else. I just assumed Nick Holt didn’t really know what he was doing, and that with the existing talent, a real defensive tactician could do something positive, and Wilcox seemed like the right guy.
Turns out, Justin Wilcox hasn’t just met those expectations, he has exceeded them. Through three games, the Huskies have averaged only 22 points allowed per game, good for 51st in the country. I know it’s early to be making too many judgements based on stats, but when you consider that Washington allowed 27, 32, and 51 points in 2011 against three non-conference teams (an FCS team in Eastern, a Mountain West team in Hawaii, and then a highly ranked program in Nebraska, respectively) that follow a very similar pattern to the 2012 slate, it’s clear that it really isn’t too early to compare.
If Wilcox is able to sustain that number, he will have coached his defense beyond mediocrity. Instead, the defense would be considered pretty good. If that doesn’t seem like something worth celebrating, go re-watch the Alamo Bowl.
In addition to keeping the score down, Wilcox’s unit has also nabbed three interceptions and forced five fumbles. They even have two defensive touchdowns, one on Marcus Peters’ interception return and another from Will Shamburger’s scooped up fumble. Taking only three games to double the 2011 total of defensive touchdowns? That’s called making plays.
So, if Wilcox has made the defense perhaps even slightly better than average, why does everyone seem so down on the Huskies? Well, it just so happens that great offense hasn’t been so great.
Still, if Keith Price and Co. start putting up 30 points a game like they did last year, this new look defense will no longer be dragging them down, because Justin Wilcox has delivered (thus far).